Trusting the Process

by Carolyn Lyon James

Liz Wessels’ office is an unassuming room, not much bigger than a closet, tucked away behind a printer. The room is dimly lit by a small lamp, a welcome change from the fluorescent lights lining the hallways and classrooms at John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids. Plaques and posters filled with writings and quotes take up all available space on her shelves and walls.

“I really love my inspirational quotes,” Liz says, smiling. “I like to be surrounded by them as reminders to myself, as well as anyone else who comes in here, to maintain a healthy perspective on life.”

Liz is a high school counselor. Sometimes her day is pretty much what you would expect it to be — studying transcripts, helping students find and fill out scholarship applications, checking their attendance, and ensuring they are on track to graduate. But she doesn’t have a lot of typical days.

“No matter how much work I may have to do, if someone is in crisis, they have to come first. That can take anywhere from an hour to taking up the whole day,” she says.

As a way of keeping their fingers on the pulse of student life, the counselors at Kennedy also take charge of a few extracurricular clubs and groups, such as LGBTQ clubs and Black Student Union. It helps them stay in touch with the kids and gives them an idea of problems and concerns the students may have in their day-to-day lives.

“What makes a person decide to become a high school counselor?” I ask.

Liz used to work in the admissions office at Mt. Mercy College, but she heard one too many times from incoming students that they just didn’t get what they needed from their high school counselors. She decided that she wanted to change that, to make a difference in the lives of as many high school students as she could. So she went back to get her master’s degree in school counseling and was hired at Kennedy right after obtaining her degree.

“What is one of your biggest challenges?”

Forgiveness, she says. “Trying to instill forgiveness and kindness can be as difficult among adults as it is among the kids. Sometimes we have to instill it more in the adults than in the kids. We may have to advocate for the kids to the teachers because the students can’t advocate for themselves. Having to change a mindset — for both the students and the adults — can fill a whole day.”

“If I could wave a magic wand and give you anything you wanted, what would that be?”

“More space,” she’s quick to answer. Ideally, she says, the counseling office would be a more spacious area with lots of different centers for students to come and explore ideas for careers, colleges, scholarships, and more.

“If more options are available to students,” she adds, “we could create a more welcoming space. And more variety means that kids are coming for multiple reasons,” thus removing the stigma of going to the counseling office. With lots of students going in and out of the different centers, no one would know who was going there for some actual counseling.

Looking around Liz’s office, I ask if she has a favorite inspirational quote. She can’t choose just one, but she’s excited about a new one that sits prominently on a middle shelf, facing the door: Character is how you treat someone who can do nothing for you.

One of the most difficult things that students from troubled backgrounds deal with is recognizing what kindness looks like, she says, and being able to accept a kindness when it is offered. Some of these kids can’t understand that someone would offer them something just because they wanted to help them.

“I would use that magic wand to take away hurt, pain, and misunderstanding,” says Liz. A mentor once told her to “trust the process.” Everything is a process, and every process takes time. “I get it,” she sighs, “but it’s hard. I’m always having to remind myself of that.”

As I leave the comforting interior of her office and walk back into the fluorescent glare of the hallway, I meet a student coming in. She adjusts her overloaded backpack and examines the crumpled paper in her hand. She looks worried as she approaches the receptionist’s desk. I give her an encouraging smile as I pass her, and she smiles weakly back at me.

“Trust the process,” I think, and I watch her disappear into the dim, warm comfort of one of the offices.